Tuesday, March 31, 2009


When in Britain last week at the Skoll World Forum, I was referred to a recent article in The Observer written by Joss Garman, the 24-year-old co-founder of the British environmental group, Plane Stupid. In the excerpt below, read to Skoll Forum delegates by Lord David Puttnam, Garman says many people [chiefly Baby Boomers] tend to write off as "fad" the deeply held climate-change worries shared by many in Garman's Millennial generation. Garman writes:

"This isn't the next fad. The naive popular narrative that "every generation has its thing" and that climate is ours—that we're the "Facebook generation"—simply does not hold. This isn't about being disaffected and rebellious without a cause. This isn't about dropping out, rejecting the norm, culture-jamming and hacking the system. This isn't even about altruism. It's not just about defending the rights and lives of those who are less fortunate than us and it certainly isn't about polar bears. This is about us. For the Millennial generation, the patronising cliches fall apart, because this isn't about ideals so much as hard science and the terrifying reality that what the scientists have been warning us all about for years—sea-level rises, catastrophic droughts, and melting ice caps—will now happen in our lifetimes. So we become angry when we witness the same generation which let the economic system collapse—and that is leaving my generation with an unfathomable burden of debt—now knowingly setting us on another disastrous course. We know how this story ends, but not because we've read obscure economic treatises or dense theories. We know because scientists are providing measurable, objective evidence that the high-carbon economic model has an in-built, self-destruct mechanism."

(Illustration, Mr. G Warming, by Matt Hertel)

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, March 28, 2009

SkollFest Wraps

The Skoll World Forum at Oxford University ended today, with its leaders and many of its delegates declaring that the failures of the global economy have given legitimacy, at last, to the new field of social entrepreneurship. The growing ranks of business innovators who also want to solve the world's social problems, they said, now seem the best hope for institutional innovation in the 21st century. "Our trusted institutions have turned out to be stunningly untrustworthy, " said Colin Mayer, the dean of the Said Business School, the site of the conference. "While governments around the world believe they are in control and that the old order will soon re-emerge, you can be sure they are not and it won't. Now, more than ever, there is a need and opportunity for institutional innovations."

Social entrepreneurship used to be seen as "an interesting but ephemeral fad," said Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan—but not anymore. Those in mainstream business, academia, government, and the media "are now finding that [this movement] has been, indeed, a harbinger of future organizations, systems, and practices." Jeffrey Skoll, in concluding remarks, urged delegates to step up their leadership efforts in the coming year. He quoted the American economist Paul Romer as saying, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Among closing-session highlights:

* Lord David Puttnam, a movie producer [best-known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, and The Killing Fields] and president of UNICEF UK, called on conferees to act urgently to overhaul education. Quoting the British author, H.G. Wells, that "the future is a race between education and catastrophe," Puttnam said it is time for every citizen to "get absolutely honest" about the serious challenges facing humanity and to demand "exactly the same degree of honesty from those who seek to lead us and make decisions on our behalf." He quoted from the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, to sum up the failures of today's wealth-society: "They smashed up things and ... then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess that they made." Puttnam, however, was most passionate about the need for education innnovation, and showed the first seven minutes of a soon-to-be released documentary that he hopes will do for educational reform what Al Gore's film, Inconvenient Truth did for climate change activism. Here's a short portion of the script:

"What we have now is a [school] system shaped by historical forces but now almost totally bankrupt of ideas for education in the 21st century—and they're betraying most of our children. Public systems of education, paid for by taxation, were invented to meet the needs of the Industrial Economy emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries, when we needed a work force that could do certain sorts of things...The high schools of today were centrally designed in the 19th century...and in the old days, we'd say one-size-fits-all—we'd put 30 kids in a classroom and teach them the same material, which they'd all be expected get in the same way...But just five years from now, much less in 25 years time, we won't know what the world will be like. How adaptable are today's kids going to be? The very best we can do is to prepare young people for a rapidly changing social, technological, economic environment, in which they're going to have to be the most flexible, collaborative, creative generation that has ever been. Education is the most fundamental challenge facing human beings; it will be key to solving all the other problems we've got."

* Soraya Salti, a new Skoll fellow and the senior vice president of MENA, INJAZ al-Arab, an education nonprofit based in Jordan, said the region has strayed far from "the Golden Age of Islam"—a time when "people of different religions and cultures were coming together to move humanity forward." Today, she said, schools across the Arab world have failed their students, fueling unprecedented rates of youth unemployment—30 percent in Saudi Arabia, 37 percent in Syria, 40 percent in Algeria, and 30 percent in Jordan. The irony? A lack of qualified human capital is cited by CEOs in the region as the No. 1 obstacle for growth. "Those who would control and politically mobilize the youth of the Arab world will be the ones who will win in the end," Salti said, paraphrasing a 2008 report by the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Is it going to be government or is it going to be the [radical] Islamists?"

Salti, in this video clip of her talk at the conference, described her recent work to assemble a team of 27 would-be social entrepreneurs from a girls' school in Jamallah to compete for a regional prize for entrepreneurship. It was an example of what her group, INJAZ, is doing to reach more than 100,000 Arab youth in six countries across the Middle East.

(Photo by Holger Gogoli, taken of a wall at the abandoned Alsen cement factory at Itzehoe in Schleswig-Hosltein, Germany)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Spinternet

In the mid-1990s, people began realizing the Internet would transform the world—but the prevailing wisdom at the time was that it would be mostly for the better. One of today's panels of thought leaders at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford agreed it's time to take another look at that assumption.

 Charles Leadbeater, a social entrepreneur and author of We-think: the power of mass creativity, said the Internet has, indeed, given more people access to knowledge [and will continue to do so, through such sites as Ushahidi, kiva.org, the new Wikimap Aid, and M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money exchange service in Kenya]. It's also clear, Leadbeater said, that the Web has begun to topple the top-down, Industrial Age way of managing people and projects into more level, lateral types of conversations, relationships and collaborative teams. "I also think the Web has huge potential to allow knowledge to be deployed in different ways which are not determined by profit," he told Skoll conferees.

Panelists also agreed that the Web—particularly cellphone video-sharing—is empowering many people to hold their leaders accountable for bullying: Witness.org Executive Director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm shared citizen videos that her nonprofit either helped to produce or took viral on the Web in an effort to stop human rights abuses. This mobile phone video, about a California man shot and killed by police, led to the arrests of two officers after it went viral shortly after the incident. [Note the irony of the "danger" sign on the closing door of the subway train that appears at the end of the clip.] Another video, shot on a Flip video camera by Witness.org-trained Yemeni activists, showcases the six-year-old daughter of Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, and her recollections of the day authorities broke into the family's home, beat her father unconscious, and imprisoned him for his pro-democracy views. Witness.org uploaded the video and took it viral; a screen shot of that video, emblazoned with The Hub's logo, was then published by an Arab newspaper. A public uproar ensued and led to the release of al-Khaiwani last September. "Once a story is out in the public sphere, it cannot be removed from public consciousness," Alberdingk Thijm said.  "The Web can help shift the dynamics of power."

But citizens, beware. It's getting harder to use the Web for social change. Challenges to the Web's potential for democracy and freedom are growing quickly now, panelists agreed. "The enemy is getting just as smart in using these same tools to silence people yet again," said Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who is writing a book about censorship and the use of the Internet by authoritarian states. 

Morozov cited a half-dozen examples of government and corporate "Net-cleansing"—including cases where companies are hiring "reputation cleansers" to bury Web references to poor corporate track records on Web search engines, while nationalist groups in Africa and the Middle East are using Google maps to mashup census data, so as to better pinpoint minority neighborhoods for targeting. Crowdsourcing also is being used by the governments of Thailand and China to drum up lists of Web sites and blogs critical of the current regimes; the Thai government, Morozov says, asks citizens to nominate Web sites to be blocked for content that offends the king; in China, a "50-cent Army" of some 200,000 or more citizens is paid to post pro-government comments on blogs critical of Beijing authorities. Morozov also says denial-of-service attacks are emerging as powerful tools for silencing political dissent in Georgia, Burma, Russia—and the United States. [During last year's debate in California over the controversial Proposition 08, Morozov says, denial-of-service attacks were used by proponents of the anti-gay proposal to stem the ability of gay and lesbian nonprofits and political action groups to fight the measure.]

 "We tend to assume the Net is going to be helping [civil rights advocates] and not the dictators," Morozov says, "but repressive groups and regimes love the Internet, too, and are figuring out how to use it to control others." When asked by moderator Andrew Zolli which side is winning—citizen civil rights activists or the dictators—Morozov said: "Both ends of the spectrum are expanding, but it's very hard for me to deliver an argument that the Net benefits one political side more than the other."

For more on the 50-cent Army and Internet censorship, see Peep Show, an August post on Cause Global about online censorship around the world.  

The Skoll World Forum 2009 ends today.

(Illustration by istock.com)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, March 26, 2009


It's often been said that social entrepreneurs, more than others, tend to see the world as something they can shape against all odds: a poll of 200 of the 785 delegates attending the three-day Skoll World Forum at Oxford University seems to prove that perception. According to the poll results, academics and advisers are the "gloomiest" of the social enterprise lot attending the forum, with nearly two-thirds of those responding saying that they are either "moderately pessimistic" [59%] or "highly pessimistic" [6.5%] about the "economic situation."

In contrast, less than half of social entrepreneurs responding to the survey said they felt pessimistic; a full 84% of social entrepreneurs predicted their programs would increase in size or at least stay the same over the next year.

Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, which organized the forum, said only 16% of organizations would be cutting back this year, a contrast to the 40% of nonprofits in the United States that said they would be scaling back or cutting programs this year in a recent U.S.-only poll. And what about the entrepreneurs? Today's poll data also show that almost 87 % of funders attending the Skoll conference [and responding to the poll] say their grants have remained the same or have increased in the past six months; over the coming year, 63 % say they think funding will remain the same or increase.

For more on the optimism of the social entrepreneur and what drives it, see our interview in December [Squalls] with Paul Light, the author of the recent book, The Search for Social Entrepreneurship, about the traits that distinguish these social innovators. Light told CauseGlobal:

I have come to agree that there is something different about the social entrepreneur...What they are is extremely optimistic about their chances of success. They all have very high confidence that they will succeed and they often ignore evidence to the contrary because they believe so strongly that they'll succeed...Additionally, they're not more likely to take risks than others but they do tend through their optimism to stick with it, and when they are told they are going to fail, they actually invest even more energy. They rebel against messages that suggest they're somehow on the wrong track."

For more on social entrepreneurs and how they're faring during the downturn, see this article, Global Heroes, in the May 12 issue of The Economist.

(Illustration: Debbie Hanford for istock.com)

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Today through Saturday, we're in Oxford, where the Skoll World Forum for social innovation convenes for its sixth year. Called the "Davos for social entrepreneurs," the event is all about celebrating up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs who don't simply want to get rich but also want to forge innovative solutions to the world's social problems—as well as create new business models for sustainable social problem-solving worldwide. The forum—being held in what Skoll's Oxford Centre Chairman Stephan Chambers today called "the most chilling economic environment we've ever experienced"—is being hosted by Oxford University and Jeff Skoll's social enterprise foundation. [Skoll, who was the first employee and first president of eBay, also is the founder of the independent movie company, Participant Productions.]

Despite the dour global economy, this year's forum has broken all previous attendance records, with some 785 social entrepreneurs from 65 countries in town for the event, including Kailash Satyarthi, chairman of the Global March Against Child Labor; Mary Robinson, founder and president of Peace Worlds Group, and Soraya Salti, senior vice president of INJAZ al-Arab, a youth education and empowerment project in Jordan. A wide range of panels Thursday and Friday will include talks entitled The Uses and Abuses of Power in Social Innovation, Capital Markets in Crisis, Powerful Women: Shifting the Status Quo, Technology and Shifting Power in a Hyper-Connected World, and Tomorrow's News: Models for an Everyone-is-Media World.

Cause Global will be covering parts of the conference. Among highlights so far:

* Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, urged conferees to be "the kinds of leaders who reject the traditional choices between two or more unsatisfactory alternatives and instead create new courses of action in the world." Martin, during an opening ceremony at the historic Sheldonian Theatre, referred to President Obama's inaugural speech, in which Obama asserted: "For our common defense, we reject as false a choice between our safety and our ideals." Rotman said that time and again, highly successful leaders reject unsatisfactory options and create new alternatives. "They understand the power of the paradox," Martin said. "The critical take-away for social entrepreneurs, specifically, is that you must reject the notion that existing business models equal reality. The status-quo business model versus civil society is not a choice but rather the root of a new model, a new set of solutions for our times."

* Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and now president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative, underscored the importance of government to help bring order to the current "chaotic" climate of change that is being felt around the world. She said:

One of the shifts taking place in this severe economic crisis is a recognition that government matters and that it's very important to the 21st century. We had been in a neo-liberal phase when there was a reduction of government and the private sector was supposed to be so efficient and we didn't need regulation. I am hoping we are now seeing a new era of more appropriate government, governments that are more responsive and also more welcoming to younger people with their tools of the information society. We need for people to become more participative in their communities and societies and their movements. We need more people holding those in power to account. How are social entrepreneurs holding existing institutions to account? We need more of that. It's important to do that and that's what social entrepreneurs and young people with their tools can do very well.

* Ken Brecher, the executive director of the Sundance Institute and an anthropologist by training, delivered an eloquent speech that underscored the importance of passion and persistence in the pursuit of the common good. He received a hearty round of applause when he compared the traits of social entrepreneurs to those traits which characterized and qualified the fearless crews recruited by the early 20th century explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. [Brecher quoted an advertisement that Shackleton placed in The London Times in 1907: "Wanted: Men for hazardous journey, low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in the event of success."] Brecher also spoke about the perserverance and resilience that characterized the life of the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1965, when she was 76 years old, during a ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre [the spot where Skoll conferees were assembled Wednesday night]. Brecher urged social entrepreneurs to heed Akhmatova's example of creativity and passion against brutal odds to bring new levels of sanity to the world. "You can use your skills to bring order from chaos and in doing so fulfill the highest human function, not as visionary but with a strong sense of reality. (Akhmatova's life was) a reproach to those who feel that a single individual can never stand up to the march of history."

The conference, at the Said Business School, continues through Friday. For more on social entrepreneurs and the state of social innovation, see this recent article in The Economist.

— Marcia Stepanek

(Photo-illustration by Lise Gagne for istock.com)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fudge Factor

The sky is falling. We don't trust our institutions, our journalists, our lawyers, our CEOs, our political leaders, our NGOS, our charities, our children, ourselves. Why should we? Most people fudge habitually, says behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the director of MIT's Center for Advanced Hindsight and author of the recent book, Predictably Irrational. The financial meltdown is just one result of this kind of mass cheating, he says. "Humans are predictably irrational," Ariely says. Here's his recent talk on cheating and why people do it, from TED 2009, below:

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Click on the image, below, to view the graphic recording of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's opening remarks today at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas:

For more on the art of graphic recording, click here.

(Graphic recording by Sunni Brown for SXSW)

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 12, 2009

When 7 Eats 9

The quote on UCLA statistician Nathan Yau's blog, flowingdata.com, is from a 1977 book by American statistician John W. Tukey, and reads: The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.

Yau should know. His Web-powered data visualizations make dry-as-dirt statistics spring to life with new meaning. Yau's purpose is radical: to give today's policymakers [and you and me] a new, big dose of reality about the world. From global poverty rates to the time we waste in our daily lives, Yau is fascinated by it all.

"Data are much more than a bucket of numbers," says Yau, whose credits include a stint in the information graphics department of The New York Times. "There are stories in that bucket."

Yau's best-known data visualization so far shows the "viral" growth of Walmart across America. Another of his visualizations tracked the Twitter activity as Barack Obama became the 44th President, and Yau also has been working to make sense of the United Nations' 66 million records with his UNdata project, a series of graphical displays of global economic statistics. For the UN, Yau helped to create Progress: A Graphical Report on the State of the World.]

But now Yau is getting personal. This week, he released his latest project, your.flowingdata—a way for people to track their own data and interact with it. Is there a series of events that make you happy or sad? Yau wants to help you identify what those are, track them, and—ultimately—replicate or avoid them. "There are complex relationships going on between our everyday behaviors," Yau says. "I want YFD to help people gain a better understanding of those relationships so as to improve their quality of life."

How does it work? For now, Yau has built a Twitter interface. You login your data—like what you ate, how long you slept last night, how much you weighed this morning—and send it to @yfd in direct messages via Twitter, using specified keywords: tweet "gnite" when you go to sleep, for example, and "gmorning" when you awake, and keep track of your food intake with "ate chicken" or "drank beer." To find patterns in your behavior over time, login to YFD with your Twitter user name and Yau will plot it all in an easy-to-read personal statistics reader.

Yau is the first to acknowledge that personal data-tracking is, at least for now, still a bit "geeky." But as science and design continue to morph, he predicts, Web-powered self-monitoring will go mainstream.

YFD stems from Yau's current gig as a statistician for the urban sensing group at the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA, a group of brainiacs developing PEIR, the Personal Environmental Impact Report. Yau describes PEIR as "an online tool that allows you to use your mobile phone to explore and share how you impact the environment and how the environment impacts you." PEIR is all part of the new movement in location-based intelligence-gathering called participatory sensing. Check out this video on how PEIR works:

For an interview with Yau on his work, click on this recent piece that appeared in Fnewsmagazine.

Yau, of course, is not the first Web visualization whiz: Like Jonathan Harris before him, Yau was inspired by Hans Rosling, the 60-year-old grandfather of the dynamic data movement, whose dramatic visualizations at the 2006 TED festival clearly illustrate how Web 2.0 technologies can help us to "see" in numbers radical new "facts" about the world—in an effort to improve it and help solve social problems.

For other visualization data, check out this recent post by Yau, 17 Ways to Visualize the Twitter Universe. Also check out this one, from Wallstats.com, about the financial crisis. Here's yet another, about the flow of immigration into the United States:

Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

(Illustration, Number Head, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, March 7, 2009

SXSW FilmFest

Here's the just-released movie poster by London-based Build for the design documentary, Objectified, which has its world debut at this month's SXSW 2009 film festival in Austin, Texas. The feature-length film looks at industrial design and the creativity at work behind the creation of everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets; director Gary Hustwit gathers the world's top designers to tell the story of the serious intention of everyday objects. Hustwit's 2008 film, Helvetica—about the iconic typeface—premiered at last year's SXSW festival. For more on Objectified [and the objects in the film], check out the Objectified blog and the movie's trailer, below:

Other films to be featured at this year's festival include Winnebago Man, Ben Steinbauer's documentary feature about Internet fame and the cursing man in the 4-minute, 2006 video of the same name that went viral on YouTube. Also in the line-up of world premieres at SXSW: Say My Name, a documentary about women in hip-hop. The poster art for these films—in competition among others for best design at the festival—are below:

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Change Magnet

Okay, Web developers, bloggers, cause-wired enthusiasts—listen up. April 3 is the deadline to apply for a new cash prize being offered by Social Actions to encourage the creation of new tools to make it easier for people to "do good" on their favorite Web sites and social networks.

Social Actions already offers an open, searchable database of some 60,000 opportunities to take action—such as signing petitions, volunteering, or giving money to any number of good causes. But Social Actions Founder Peter Dietz wants more people to get involved, so has kicked off Change the Web Challenge to encourage third parties to figure out ways to bring these opportunities directly to the sites that people already visit, regardless.

Social Actions is offering $10,000 in prizes to be divvied up between the three best applications, which will be named April 28, the final day of this year's NTEN conference in San Francisco.

"The economy is in the doldrums and people need to help each other out wherever possible," Dietz says. "We have the chance to make the Web more philanthropic and do more with the technologies available to us and the audiences already assembled on social networks to engage more people to make a difference."

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ground Crew

GPS is not just about maps and driving directions anymore. As smart phones get even smarter, people like Joe Edelman are creating new ways to use location-awareness apps to enable people to connect and interact with the world from their pockets in ways previously unimaginable.

For his part, Edelman is developing something called Ground Crew—which he hopes will help to make community organizing easier, if not more immediate. Think crowdsourcing—but on-demand. Need a bunch of volunteers within the next hour to help your nonprofit distribute fliers around the neighborhood? "Get your squad on," says Edelman. Using your mobile phone, Ground Crew can link you to a real-time "squad" of people who can drum up volunteer coordinators and community organizers in a heartbeat. It uses text messaging and GPS to help you see who in your network is available at any given time, whether for 20 minutes or an entire morning.

Edelman, a former community organizer, is especially excited by the potential of his app to crowd-source large demonstrations, like flash causes. "We need to reorganize the world," says Edelman, who got inspired through his previous work with Charlie Todd's Improv Everywhere group, famous for its art-and-performance flash mobs, including Frozen Grand Central in 2008. "We're not doing things right as communities. We're not meeting our neighbors. We're using too much energy to get things done."

Check out some of the other promising new location-awareness apps in Wired; mobileactive.org also is tracking them closely.

(Illustration, Beyond Cell Phone, by Antonis Papantoniou for istock.com)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,